- The Washington Times - Friday, July 25, 2003

Forget it — the itinerary, that is, and travel back in time to the grand days of sailing with Maine’s historic schooner fleet. The idea is revolutionary and long overdue — a cruise without an itinerary. “We go where the wind blows us,” John C. Foss, captain of the American Eagle, tells his 20 incredulous passengers.

Crouched over a map at the rear of the boat, his whitecapped hair blowing in the wind and his twinkling eyes matching the murky blueness of Penobscot Bay, Mr. Foss obviously is used to having this idea take some time to settle in. “Even though I don’t really know where we’re going over the next four days, I do know that you’ll see some beautiful coastline and enjoy some great sailing.”

As I am someone who can’t stand knowing a ship will be landing at port at 10:05 a.m. on Thursday, departing at 7:15 that same evening, Mr. Foss and his American Eagle quickly become my heroes. Obviously I am not the only one. About half of my fellow passengers are repeat American Eagle sailors. One woman is even booked for two sailings in a row: trips 18 and 19 with Foss.

Pulling out of Rockland Harbor the next morning, in the middle of Maine’s 3,500 miles of coast, I am huddled next to my mom and Roma, an 89-year-old woman from Ontario, on the blond-wood deck. We are all swaddled in every stitch of clothing we brought. It is the middle of June, but June on the water in Maine can feel more like ski season than summer.

Maybe it’s because our faces are frozen, or maybe it’s because the only sounds audible are those of the boat crashing through waves, the gulls overhead, and fellow passengers’ excited laughter, but none of us can stop smiling.

As we follow the winds and tides around Maine’s pocked-with-islands Penobscot Bay that first day, lobster boats surround us, and there isn’t a single bit of land that looks uninteresting. By lunch — fish chowder (of course), fresh bread, an Oriental salad with raspberry dressing and chocolate chip cookies out of the wood-burning stove — fellow passengers are scanning the bay and its islands with binoculars, pointing to places they have been in the past and at other windjammers passing in the distance.

Heading back for my third helping of chowder, I’m strangely ambivalent as to our destination and present whereabouts. As long as I have hot cookies at hand and can hear the birds overhead, I’m happy.

One hundred years ago, traveling around Penobscot Bay by schooner was much more common, and much less plush, than it is today: Sixteen thousand of the boats, mostly used for fishing or transporting goods, were harbored here. Today there are just 16.

Built in 1930 in Gloucester, Mass., the American Eagle is one of the oldest still around. I would say it was the most interesting, too, but with the stories these ships have, picking a most-interesting candidate would be like getting the entire country to agree on the greatest baseball player ever.

The American Eagle spent 53 years in the Gloucester fishing fleet, sailing the coast of the Eastern Seaboard for weeks at a time in search of cod and lobster. Very ready for retirement and hardly seaworthy anymore, she was bought in 1984 by Mr. Foss, who has lived on Maine’s coast since he was 11.

“That boat is such an ugly old slab she could make a vulture vomit,” was all Mr. Foss’ father-in-law could say when he first saw it. In two years, however, the American Eagle underwent a complete makeover.

Mr. Foss and his partners at the North End Shipyard completely rebuilt the 92-foot boat, relaunching her on April 26, 1986, looking the best she had since her first launching, in June 1930. Mr. Foss even was able to use a greater than expected percentage of the original boat, “much, much more than I had first thought,” he says.

In the 17 years since relaunching, the American Eagle has been cutting the waters of Penobscot Bay for four months of each year, late May through early October, introducing as many as 26 passengers at a time to the history of Maine’s coast and schooners.

Some of this introducing happens up on deck, with Mr. Foss pointing out notable landmarks and landmasses. The most interesting is done down in the galley, however, during Mr. Foss’ near-nightly storytelling sessions. The first night, Mr. Foss merely reads some innocuous Dave Barry stories, as innocuous as such can be.

The second and third nights, Mr. Foss brings out the sea stories and ballads. He recites each as if he’s the main character in it.

Moored off Swan Island, a blip in the bay inhabited by several dozen hardy watermen, Mr. Foss tells us the story of a sailor who has a dream that the ship he is on sinks on its next voyage. He takes a berth on a different ship. A few weeks later, he hears that his former ship has sunk, along with all of his friends who called him crazy.

Passengers, too, begin telling stories. Bob tells about his adventures in the Navy during World War II. Carol Anne about all the places her job in the Department of Defense takes her. Bethany about her adventures in college. A few brave souls even offer up a song.

It is off Swan Island that I am introduced to the life of a deckhand. I’ll say right now that lowering a sail is more about artistry than strength (not that I posses either). With Mr. Foss assisted by just three real deckhands, passengers routinely pitch in to help.

Having volunteered to help stack the mainsail, I can’t keep it atop the main boom. Every time I think I’m doing a good job, making even folds from one side to the other, I look down to see canvas billowing out in all directions in a most disorderly fashion. Then and there, I decide that kitchen duty is better suited to my talents.

I am broken into that easily, however. The next evening is a lobster bake on a bona fide deserted island. The passengers get dirtier than the galley.

While Rick, the cook, and his assistant, Bonnie (who is a rancher in Colorado when not sailing with Mr. Foss), get four dozen lobsters — bought from fishermen we passed earlier in the day — boiling in huge pots on a beach, my mom and I decide to explore. Even though Pond Island is a circle less than a mile in circumference, we lose each other. I stop to watch some seals as she continues on, in search of unfamiliar shells.

Meeting back at the lobsters, just as Rick is dumping out the seawater and seaweed in which they were cooked, I am handed one as big as my forearm. “There’s another one waiting, too,” I am told, “and turkey dogs, hamburgers, and blueberry and apple pies.”

Not even Hollywood, with all of its producers and stylists, could conjure up anything more perfectly Maine.

Even though days on board are usually spent eating, reading and occasionally helping hoist a sail, we put into shore at least once a day: Swan Island, Pond Island, Castine.

As we row into Castine (we have to moor a few hundred feet out from the town’s dock), Great Gatsby-esque homes greet us. Most homes along Castine’s narrow, elm-lined streets have plaques with their construction dates on them. A new house seems to be one built after the Declaration of Independence was signed.

A few blocks from the dock sits one of the oldest structures in town: Fort George, a former British defensive outpost. Not much is left — a few walls and escarpments — but it’s enough to get the imagination going with battles, raids and hardships of Colonial life.

Outside Castine, the American Eagle is ready to show us what she has … and nature demonstrates its powers to us. In perfect wind, we tack and tack and tack, zigzagging across the bay like a honey-crazed bee from flower to flower. My mother and I have no choice but to abandon our game of Scrabble when the tiles all fall to one side.

At one point, we’re tacking so hard that waves wash onto the deck and crash down into the galley. “Dinner tonight might be a little salty,” Rick calls up.

We are just about to drop anchor for the evening when Mr. Foss spies flotsam — a tire in this case — a few hundred yards away. As he maneuvers the boat alongside the tire, making it look as easy as pulling a car up to a curb, the crew gaffes it and hauls it on board.

“I have to do something to make this feel like work,” Mr. Foss says, his eyes disappearing into his tan face as he smiles. “Even so, it doesn’t seem fair that I get paid for this, does it?”

Trips include whale watching

The American Eagle sails from the North End Shipyard in Rockland, Maine, from May through the end of October.

It offers four- and six-day cruises, as well as several special itineraries — yes, John C. Foss, the captain, does do some preplanned trips — to various places in Canada and a whale-watching cruise to New Brunswick’s Bay of Fundy.

Although the American Eagle is quite plush when compared to other windjammers — a hot shower and two below-deck toilets — cabins are very small and walls are very thin. Earplugs are recommended.

For those worried about seasickness, the American Eagle always spends the first night of any trip in Rockland Harbor. “We’d rather someone find out he gets seasick while we’re still attached to land,” says one member of the crew. “It makes it easier for everyone.” Be warned, however, that the night I spent in Rockland Harbor was the bumpiest of all my nights aboard.

Prices for four-day cruises begin at $515. Six-day cruises start at $775. The longer voyages to Canada are nine or 10 days and begin at $1,095. For more information, call 800/648-4544 or, on the Internet, check www.schooneramericaneagle.com. Youngsters 12 and older are welcome as passengers.

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